[REVIEW] “The Expatriate, Itinerant Underclass: A Review of Stephen Griffiths’s The Kowloon English Club” by Andrew Barker

{Written by Andrew Barker, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Stephen Griffiths, The Kowloon English Club, Blacksmith Books, 2021. 292 pgs.

Andrew Barker discusses Stephen Griffiths’s expat Hong Kong novel about a teacher of conversational English set in 1996 and asks, “What’s the point?”

What is a Hong Kong novel? Well, clearly it must be set in Hong Kong. I suppose it helps if it deals with the lives of those in Hong Kong, but basically Hong Kong being a geographical determination, the setting is the main criterion. And, certainly, it helps if the people in the novel are, well, Hongkongers. Given that Hong Kong’s population is 92 per cent Chinese, it could be argued that if the novel does not deal with Chinese people it’s less of a Hong Kong novel than one that does. All that seems fair enough, but novels mostly deal with a very specific group of people doing very specific things, who are very rarely representational of the geographical location where their story occurs, and every place has social microcosms and more obscure and atypical elements of the society, Hong Kong perhaps more than most. How much we care about those living within those social and individual worlds depends on how interesting or exciting or well written their depiction within the novel, or how relatable the events they convey, actually are. Two of the joys of the honestly presented novel are that they can articulate what it is like to be us, or conversely let us know what it is like to be someone else. (If you think about it, a novel has to do one or the other). So let me start this review-analysis by promising that if you are not one of the people depicted in Stephen Griffiths’s The Kowloon English Club this book will let you know what it was like to have been one of them. The corollary of this question is: “How much do we want to know about the lives of expat English conversation teachers in Hong Kong prior to the then colony’s 1997 handover from the UK to China?”

This is what happens in The Kowloon English Club—Joe Walsh arrives in Hong Kong, he checks into Chungking Mansions for six months, sells sandwiches for a bit, teaches conversational English for a few months, and then leaves. Joe is “clean-cut, slim, young, pretending to be respectable and getting away with it”. He is twenty-seven. And while he’s in Hong Kong we are treated to descriptions of a few of the places he visits, transcripts of a lot of conversations he has, and snapshots of many people with whom he has them. That’s it. And let me reiterate: the events that the novel recounts take place in 1996 in Hong Kong.

Books like this are often critiqued with rather undignified, jealous, and what I suppose we should call ‘pissing-contest-dick-measuring’ responses by readers who either live in, or have spent time in, the place where they are set, or were very familiar with the world in which they are set, during the time they are set. This dick-measuring response is particularly common among those who have lived the life set down in these books, eliciting reactions such as, “That’s not right! That’s not what it was like!” A lot of people I know lived the life depicted here. And I’m sure a lot of people other than Stephen Griffiths wrote the same kind of book. I produced one myself. And mine is bigger, and longer, and I definitely knew how to do a lot more things with it than this one achieves. Mine is also funnier, but naturally that doesn’t apply to the metaphorical association that I establish above. And although these types of comparisons, or potential comparisons, with what many potential readers have written, or might have written, or might one day write, are inevitable and may even be fair, I think they should be reined in, (or buttoned up, to pursue the metaphor, or alternatively, zip it up), simply because Steven Griffiths is the one who has put this particular story down on the page, and The Kowloon English Club needs to be reviewed dispassionately and on its own merits for its contributions to that hopefully ever-expanding field of “books written on, in, or by people from, Hong Kong.”

Having got that bit out of the way, let’s acknowledge that, as a Hong Kong novel, The Kowloon English Club, is very Hong Kong, and, by the same critical measure, not very much of a novel. It is far more of a travel book about a place where the writer has stayed a little longer than he thought he should. So, rather than being transient and fleeting, the opinions expressed are often more thought through and developed. Certainly, it is far more memoir than novel, and often it resembles more a collection of articles or blogs on what the author has seen in Hong Kong; in places, it even reads more like a guidebook than a novel. For example, after a visit to the Big Buddha, we are told in typical guidebook style, “it was still worth a visit, not least for the views, natural surroundings and more,” even if further artistic illumination would be welcomed by the reader. There’s a considerable amount of such telling, but very little showing. Rarely do the descriptive passages overlap with dialogue, as in, “We had this conversation, while we were doing this thing, in this place,” in a way that would drive the story forward because what is happening is linked to a developing plot, as would be the case in a novel. There is far more of the “I saw this, and I thought this about it, and then I heard someone say they thought this, and I replied that I thought this,” style of writing that we get in a journal of somebody’s thoughts put down to be fully developed later. So far, so good, or not, but there is a technical problem here, other than with the story’s lack of development. Rather than this being Stephen Griffiths’s own journal, the book purports to be the journal of the protagonist, Joe Walsh, and unfortunately Joe never really establishes himself as an independent character by freeing himself from his creator’s shadow. Joe never surprises us. But really, how could he? To surprise us, and be an interesting central character is not what he’s there for. He’s there to be the guy who witnesses the things Griffiths wants to record. To make the comments on them Griffiths wants him to make. Joe Walsh exists primarily so Stephen Griffiths can’t be called a liar for exaggerating events or recounting things that never happened in the way he would be if the protagonist were called Stephen Griffiths. That novelists do this all the time is irrelevant. You’ll still get called a liar by half the people who read your book if you create a character with your name. Rather than being a memoir or a novel, the book is a memoir in the form of a novel, or perhaps a novel in the form of a memoir.

But, of course, what matters is this: is it any good? To which the reply must be, good for what? Good as in, worth a place on the “books written on, in, or by people from, Hong Kong shelf.” (We should all have one of these!)

And here comes the resounding, unreserved verdict: Yes, yes it is. For what The Kowloon English Club most certainly does is give a delightfully grim, unvarnished, honest and accurate depiction of the life lived by those it describes; the expatriate, itinerant underclass scratching out a hand-to-mouth existence living in some of the most unpleasant places in Hong Kong, and trying to find ways to get enough money together to enable something larger and more exciting to happen to them. And as a historical document of that and that lifestyle at that time, it is spot on. Anyone who says this isn’t what it was like is lying.

The Hong Kong depicted here is not only pre-mobile device it’s pre-mobile phone. Pre-internet. In fact, it’s even pre-pager. This is the Hong Kong where you flew into Kai Tak, not Chek Lap Kok, and where Lan Kwai Fong is just another street in Central. It is a Hong Kong that contains Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip shop in Wan Chai, Rick’s Café and Mad Dogs. All of them fun to name-check. It’s a Hong Kong of FILTH. Failed in London, try Hong Kong. Remember that? Except those in this book are the people who would never have got to London in the first place. It’s the Hong Kong of Mirador Mansions which the Joe/Griffiths protagonist calls Mirror Mansions, representing a “better class of shithole altogether” than Chungking Mansions. I myself remember someone saying exactly that to me at one point. I also remember “Chinese people wearing t-shirts with motifs and English slogans they plainly did not understand”. The narrator cites one with the words “in case of fire pull hose” and an arrow pointing downward to a crotch. I remember one reading, “Hong Kong Muff-Diving Champion No Muff Too Tough.” There were a lot of those about for a while. A lot of what Griffiths notes is very familiar to anyone who was in any way connected, even peripherally, to the world he describes. I even remember “seeing the up-and-coming Taiwanese actress Siu Kei [Shu Qi] coming out of the Peak Café and looking more glamorous and sensuous than anyone I had ever seen,” exactly as he describes too. Griffiths also resists the temptation to have characters intuit anything about the future we know is to come. There is no authorial indication of the imminent Asian financial crisis, or the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003, no knowing nod of the head to what is happening in Hong Kong today, no accurate political predictions made by characters then about what is happening now. Characters’ discussions are held solely within the world of 1996, as if they were written back then and put aside, which may very well have been the case.

Books like this are contemporary when they are written, then they get old-fashioned very quickly. But if you put them aside long enough, they have not only a nostalgic appeal but a historical one as well. The microcosmic world of The Kowloon English Club simply does not exist anymore.

“Only the outsider sees,” as Graham Greene used to say, and whether the “only” here is true or not, the outsider is honed to recognise things the “insider” will not because they are taken for granted. “In the Koran, there are no camels; I believe the absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work,” says Borges, in The Argentine Writer and Tradition. “It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were part of reality, he had no reason to emphasise them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page.” So aside from the name-checking, what does the Joe/Griffiths protagonist see? What are the Hong Kong camels he notices that the person who has been in Hong Kong longer would not?

Here’s a possible example: “Almost the first structure to catch my eye upon leaving Chungking was a large marble mosque. It would be some time before I would see anything of similar relevance to the local culture such as a Taoist or Buddhist temples. Instead, I would realise, the array of shopping malls, designer goods and jewellery stores were the real places of worship in Hong Kong, and the luxury brands within its icons.” He writes that and I think, that’s such a clichéd observation! But, of course this is exactly what someone would think who had just arrived. Presumably it’s not so much what somewhat would think as what someone did think. “But for now, I would leave such cynicism aside,” Joe tells us. And all I can think is, what’s cynical about that observation? It’s too obvious to bother to notice. Perhaps, as Greene and Borges claim, we get too close to notice. Perhaps this is the aforementioned pissing-contest-dick-waving of “Everybody knows that. Everybody says that. I’ve heard that so many times before.” But I will argue that this familiarity of observation is also one of the book’s strengths and charms.

The larger Hong Kong the Joe/Griffiths protagonist sees is, of course, unchanged since the time of writing and there are more, always welcome and interesting if not always particularly original, descriptions of Hong Kong life and scenery depiction of Hong Kong views than in many other Hong Kong novels because the protagonist is passing through and these are the very things the protagonist would notice. Similarly, the synopsis of Hong Kong’s pre-handover political situation in the book’s prologue and opening are very familiar, but once again they are familiar because that is how so many people saw it at the time. Also, Chungking Mansions really was the way he describes it, if not worse, and the Big Buddha, which is always worth a mention still looks like that. It is after all the largest seated Big Buddha in the world. Though as Joe/Griffiths lets us know: “Which when you think about it, means there could be several larger standing Buddhas or reclining Buddhas and probably a fair few seated Buddhas made of alternative materials.”And yes, everybody makes that joke about the Buddha. But the fact that “everybody” says that about the Buddha is part of the point of the book’s protagonist, and for me one of its chief charms. He is the everyman who was here at that time saying what everybody like him said.

A lot of the protagonist’s observations are presented as and in conversation pieces to create the veneer of being novelistic, and establish what a friend of mine calls the, “persona defence.” This is: “I didn’t say that. A character in something I wrote said it.” Which is absolutely true, of course, but the author still selects the topics his characters discuss and manipulate our sympathies in a certain direction, so the way the moral bias inclines is important. And there are a lot of these conversation pieces. Topics include, the difference between Hongkongers and people from Shanghai, discrimination in Wan Chai bars, speaking a different first language from your partner. All conversations that expats living in Hong Kong have probably heard before, and, once again, this is part of the book’s strength.

Here’s Joe/Griffiths on Hong Kong people’s relationship to the countryside:

Any appreciation in the Western mind of tranquillity, fresh air, mountain views and nature is outweighed by the more negative symbolism of poverty, lack of civilisation and danger. Only a generation earlier in Mao’s China, hundreds of millions of the bourgeois and other ‘class traitors’ were expelled from the cities to the countryside for ‘re-education’ and forced to scratch a living on infertile lands frozen by harsh winters and scorched to dust by summer sun and drought, with the cycles of disease and famine as predictable as the seasons. And I suspect it is an ancestral memory that still runs deep.

Stephen Griffiths, The Kowloon English Club.

This is of course true, except when it isn’t, though the phenomenon described cannot run too deep as an ancestral memory because at the time of writing it can only be at most two generations old, but we know what Joe/Griffiths means. And, of course, how can we criticise it, since it’s not a comment made by Griffiths, it’s a comment made by an imagined character in a novel written by Griffiths. The same is true of all Joe does or says during his time in Hong Kong, a time during which he drops acid, sleeps with a girl who says it is her first time, overhears a near rape, prevents a probable rape, has the casual sex expected of people of a twenty-seven-year-old, watches Gurkha veterans shoot up heroin in the corridors of Chungking Mansions (which they did a lot), goes to Canton to see Westerners adopting Chinese babies, goes to Sham Shui Po, walks round The Peak, goes to a bar in Wan Chai to watch Filipina girls with older Western guys, (which he writes about very well), watches people eat dog, and does a lot of conversational English teaching.

Of course, we get the impression as we read all this, that Joe Walsh goes to Canton to see Westerners adopting Chinese babies so Stephen Griffiths can say something about Westerners adopting Chinese babies, Joe Walsh goes to Sham Shui Po, not for any reasons of plot development but so Stephen Griffiths can describe and comment on Sham Shui Po. Which, if often in the style of a newspaper article, he does well. Joe Walsh will have a conversation with someone about Filipina girls in bars in Wan Chai so Stephen Griffiths can write: “Look, there are up to two-hundred thousand Filipinas in Hong Kong and several thousand more Indonesians. They’ve all got menial jobs; they’re bored they’re lonely; they’re far from home. Pretty much the same as us. So they like to let their hair down once in a while, have a drink and dance, meet someone. Again, just like us.” Once again, fair enough as an observation as far as it goes, and nothing anyone living in Hong Kong in the position Joe is in hasn’t heard or said.

Where I find the Joe/Griffiths protagonist most revelatory is on the topic of English conversation teaching and Joe’s day-to-day lifestyle. Or perhaps, to be more specific, it’s on the subject of money. This may be a personal thing, but I find knowing how much money a character is making in a novel not only a very relevant indicator of motivation but, for good or bad, a way of making one believe actually existed. And nobody in this book has any money. Nobody! In that alone it’s almost unique as a novel set in Hong Kong and written by a Westerner.

I couldn’t resist working out how much Joe earns. It’s HK$60 an hour. Which I remember as accurate for the work he does. He pays HK$60 a day in rent. He works eight hours a day. Five days a week. He could probably save HK$350 a day, that’s HK$2,100 a week saved, probably HK$8,000 a month, after five months that would give him HK$40,000  to spend in Thailand or India in in 1997. What would that be worth? At a 12.5 exchange rate in 1997, that would give him £3,200 sterling. In 1997. Certainly not a fortune, but it could last for a while, I suppose. Joe really doesn’t make much selling sandwiches either. Five dollars profit on each sandwich. The point here is that all of this is true, and the “expat trash” of the book’s chapter title really did used to live like that. Of course, Joe doesn’t know of the economic crash that’s about to hit. I don’t know if this is a useful yardstick, but a bricklayer in England working on a skilled and particularly gruelling manual job from eight to five with two half-hour breaks, would have been earning about £90 a day, pre-tax, at this time. That’s why Joe and people like him were here in Hong Kong, and happy enough to earn what they did teaching English conversation.

Griffiths is very accurate on how boring teaching like this for any length of time tends to be. Especially when “confined to a putrid, cockroach-infested hostel… [Griffiths at one point gives readers seven pages on cockroaches]… working in a teaching sweatshop with job satisfaction diminishing by the day…  I get up at eight, quick shower, walk the short distance to work, a cup of tea and a bun, then a nine o’clock start, and a four hour stint. Home thereafter for a couple of hours’ siesta in an empty dorm, revived for an evening session that would also pass in a blur, before finally heading home with a meal and a couple of drinks inside me. Then I would sleep like a child.” This is fine when you’re young, of course, but there are people doing the same job with a wife and children to support. “He didn’t see himself as an entertainer, raconteur, chat show host, agony uncle or sex instructor, unlike some of his colleagues. He was a teacher, and teaching was what he wanted to do.” Very noble, I’m sure. But this is all very remote from the world of expat bankers, lawyers, pilots, and the regular partying their lives revolved around. This world is even far from the world of the NETs, native English teachers, at Hong Kong’s local schools. Their working lives and employment packages are so much more ample, but then this book is not about them.

At one point Joe bizarrely declares, “I had been caught up in the hedonistic Hong Kong expat lifestyle of living for the day and fuck tomorrow”. I couldn’t help replying, “I don’t think you have, mate!” Joe tells us of “the most extraordinary year of my life, a last few weeks beset by drama-on-crises on top of exhaustion . . .” and I couldn’t help think either Griffiths or his character is overselling how exciting or even unusual, in the Hong Kong context, his activities were.

I also wondered how far this supposed excitement he depicts is less to do with the activities engaged in, and more to do with just being young. Joseph Conrad’s Youth gets funnier the older we get. For, to digress slightly from analysing-reviewing The Kowloon English Club as a book on Hong Kong, it’s worth pointing out that the book is also thematically concerned with an exploration of two other fertile areas of experience. It is about being young, and it is also about that time in your life when you wish to just travel and see the world. “I think of all the other places in the world waiting to be discovered and recall the words of my grandfather advising me to always move on and never look back,” says Joe as he leaves.

I mention this only because I know that when I was that age, twenty-seven, and was that person, with backpack as larder, safe and wardrobe, this is exactly the sort of book I wanted to read. The very squalor depicted in the life Joe lives would have been peculiarly but definitely appealing; likewise, the realistic grind of Joe’s existence and the problems he surmounts to be able to explore one area of the world before moving on to another, all that would have been only just short of heroic, and certainly highly desirable. Not everyone gets to a place and wants to stay there. Not everyone wants to be that person who makes the larger life for themselves in the place they write of, and, total failure though Joe is by the standards of wealth and status-acquisition in Hong Kong, these are not the only standards by which readers can or will judge him. Joe Walsh is twenty-seven years old, out there, experiencing something, anything, doing what he needs to do to move on, creating the memories he will write about in years to come. He shows that living and working for a short time in another country can be done, adventures (such as they are) will happen, and though the mobile device has changed the backpacker-experience beyond all recognition from the one depicted here, does this ‘arrive-find-work-get-money-enough-to-move-on-somewhere-cheaper’ life-style not still exist? I believe that, among this particular group of young people, the book will find its readers too. And frankly, not everyone interested in this book will be living in Hong Kong and have experienced its narrative before. Perhaps we are all prone to believe that when we are familiar with something everybody else is equally familiar with it as well.

But it is what the book says about Hong Kong that we are mainly interested in here. “Hong Kong was Chinese but wasn’t China,” we are told of those pre-handover days. What Griffiths has produced is in many respects a historical document. Imagine if it were to have been written a hundred years ago: its content would be a treasure-trove. Paradoxically, while all novels can be read as historical documents, this type of book is far more interesting when read primarily as a historical document rather than as a novel. This is 1996 Hong Kong seen through Western eyes. Itinerant Western eyes, at least. Are Hongkongers interested in how their city is seen through itinerant Western eyes? Perhaps they are. Do Hongkongers wonder how they are seen through itinerant Western eyes? Perhaps they do. And this is why the Joe/Griffiths amalgamation of character/author is so worth investigating. Joe doesn’t really exist as an individual character; he exists as a cipher so Griffiths can say to Hongkongers: “This is how Westerners like me, but not specifically me, me see Hong Kong and see you.” Naturally this position creates a complication: namely, the extent to which Joe/Griffiths is speaking about Hong Kong becomes less important than the extent to which he is speaking for Westerners and as a representative of Western views of Hong Kong. The Kowloon English Club is fundamentally a document on how Westerners saw (see) Hong Kong as much as it is a document on Hong Kong itself, which is the essential point of the book. That said, we really shouldn’t have a problem seeing it in this light.

Does Hong Kong or history need this document? Need? No. Benefit in some small way from its addition to the corpus of books written on, in, or by people from, Hong Kong? Absolutely. But I hear you say, “aren’t there so many more important books on, in or written by people from Hong Kong out there to read? Indeed there are.” Read those as well, and judge for yourself.

Also see this review in Cha:

How to cite: Barker, Andrew. “The expatriate, Itinerant Underclass: A Review of Stephen Griffiths’s The Kowloon English Club.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 19 Jan. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/01/19/kowloon-english-club/.

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Andrew Barker spent his youth working as bricklayer before entering academia and obtaining a BA in English Literature, an MA in Anglo/Irish Literature, and a PhD in American Literature. He now works as a university literature lecturer in Hong Kong and releases poetry online through his poetry web channel. His online Mycroft Lectures on poetry have been viewed by over half a million netizens, and he is the author of Snowblind from my Protective Colouring (2010), and Joyce is Not Here: 101 Modern Shakespearean Sonnets (2017). His recent poetry can be viewed on Instagram.

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